The Greatest Rock Lyric Of All Time



bobdylan2lyricsSo happy to see Sir Rocknuts open the drawbridge last week on a conversation about Rock lyrics. There are still so many words to be said about all those words that were sung, and he really got the ball rolling with his sprawling epic post. I particularly liked his stab at defining four criteria for a good lyric:

  1. Was it profound?
  2. How well did it fit with the song?
  3. Was it uniquely clever?
  4. How well did it evoke mood and scene?

A fine summation, and the good news is you only need to score high on one to qualify as a good lyric! It all seems so straightforward, until you realize how subjective it really is to identify these characteristics, way more subjective than identifying great guitar solos. Many more people would agree on a list of great guitar solos than they would on a list of great Rock lyrics. The simple truth is that one person’s profundity is another person’s malarkey, and there’s just no getting around that.

Part of the problem is that lyrics are so tightly bound with music that it is often difficult to separate their values from each other. Imagine if the task at hand was the opposite – rating songs on the basis of the music only, completely disregarding the lyrics – how pointless and useless that would be. A great song is greater than the sum of its parts and I think context is everything when it comes to determining a great lyric.

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As Jordan suggested, there are many great songs with lame/stupid/unintelligible lyrics. I’ve always felt that one of the dumbest lines in Rock history is the Beach Boys’ “She’s giving me excitations”. It always sounded so juvenile to me, and I always felt like an idiot singing it. But in the context of the song’s earnest spacey supernaturalism, the word is somehow perfect and the song would be the lesser without it. (“She’s giving me invitations”?)

At the end of the day, determining what is a good or a bad lyric is a very personal transaction. Depending on our own personal experience, we connect deeply with some lyrics and not others. So for my first foray into The Lyrics Series, allow me to talk about the lyric that has not only had a deep effect on my life, but that has also been quoted and misquoted thousands of times. I am going to call it The Greatest Lyric Of All Time.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that it is a Bob Dylan lyric. Dylan is far and away the greatest lyricist in Rock history, way better than the Beatles, way better than anybody else. I was a bit taken aback that both Jordan and Sir Rocknuts seemed to put Springsteen’s lyrics on the same plane as Dylan’s. I agree with Jordan that “Thunder Road” is one of Springsteen’s best efforts, and I think this is one of the great lines of all time:

So you’re scared and you’re thinkin
That maybe we ain’t that young anymore
Show a little faith
There’s magic in the night

Great lyric, but with all due respect, equating Dylan with Springsteen in any way is crazy talk. Springsteen is not in the same galaxy as Dylan, lyrics-wise. Nobody is.

The thing is, Dylan’s got everybody beat by miles on the four criteria listed above. Profound and clever? Just about every single Bob Dylan song has something profound or clever in its lyrics. I hope to point out as many of them as I can as this series goes forward. In terms of fitting lyrics into songs, absolutely nobody can match Dylan’s proficiency with rhyme and meter, that is, the ability to put the exact number of syllables with the right emphases in the right places. His use of language is peerless.

And as for setting the right mood and scene, well, something is happening here but you don’t know what it is, do you Mr. Jones?

Anyway here goes. I think the Greatest Rock Lyric Of All Time is from 1965’s “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)”. The entire lyric is a tour de force, Dylan himself always called it one of his best songs that he would be hard-pressed to top (it’s a great example of his brilliant meter, too). Other than the verse I selected, it contains well-known lines like “Money doesn’t talk, it swears” and “Even the President of the United States sometimes must have to stand naked”.

But this is the verse that says so much. Most people quote or misquote the last line, but I think the first part should be included because it gives the payoff line context and power:

From the fool’s gold mouthpiece
The hollow horn plays wasted words
Which proves to warn
That he not busy being born
Is busy dying

This is a lyric whose meaning has even more relevance in the Internet Age. That our public discourse is filled with falsehoods and deception is a given, but I think he’s getting at more than that. I think he’s also saying that mediocrity is a transgression that is just as bad, and that we can either accept it in others, and in ourselves, or we can reject it. To constantly strive to improve ourselves and the world around us is to be busy being born. The alternative is obvious. If these aren’t words to live by, I don’t know what are.

This lyric is constantly being misquoted as “Get busy being born, or get busy dying”. President Jimmy Carter famously said it in 1976, and politicians of all stripes have uttered it over the years. In The Shawshank Redemption, the Ellis “Red” Redding character gave us the variation “Get busy living, or get busy dying”. In addition to the profound power of its meaning, this is a lyric with legs, a message that has touched millions of people. I can’t think of another Rock lyric that can match it on all those levels.

In my next contribution to The Lyrics Series, I will try to rebut Sir Rocknuts’ heretical comments about Paul McCartney, and discuss other great lyrics as we journey through all those words that were sung, words that mean so much to so many.

Photo: By Francisco Antunes (Flickr) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

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2 comments to “The Greatest Rock Lyric Of All Time”
  1. Pingback: Paul Simon Collaborates With Hip Hop Producers On Airy New Remix | Rocknuts

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